In neighborhoods well to the north of the Salt River channel, Phoenix’s artist communities and downtown advocates fought for mixed-use zoning that would allow places of residence to coexist with commercial storefronts. South of the river, where housing was placed in close proximity to dirty industrial facilities, mixed land use had an altogether different meaning. Residents in South Phoenix, long regarded as the city’s human and natural sacrifice zone, were fighting for the right to enjoy clean air and water, unencumbered by the toxic hazards that government permitting had allowed to fester in their neighborhoods. The disparity between these two battles with City Hall spoke volumes about the environmental challenges facing Phoenix, and almost every other city divided by race and class. Hydrologists talk about water “flow” in the West, but very few of the rivers flow naturally anymore, and many, like the mighty Colorado itself, rarely reach their destinations. Except for spasmodic floods, the Salt River has not really flowed through the Phoenix Basin since the early twentieth century, and it exists today primarily as an orderly system of canals. In its natural heyday, it was a wildly erratic river, and so its flood plain was several miles broad. Today’s riverbed is a vast moonscape of sand and cobbles, though it is far from deserted. Cheap land and laissez-faire regulation have drawn in the region’s worst polluters over the years. For decades, it was used as a dumping ground for all manner of waste, some of it exported from neighboring states, like California, with more oversight over disposal of hazardous materials than Arizona. From a commercial standpoint, the riverbed was the mother of all brownfield sites, zealously eyed by developers hoping to cut a deal with government agencies with fast-track access to federal cleanup funds. Dreams of converting the urban portions of the Salt River into a waterside attraction dated back to the 1960s when ASU design students conceived a restoration project under the alluring name of Rio Salado.
Keywords: African Americans, arsenic, bollworms, diabetes, freeways, gasoline products, incinerators, nitrogen oxides, population, segregation, sewage processing, toxaphene, toxic spills, trichloroethylene (TCE)
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